Fumio Kishida’s Five-nation Tour: An Assessment
Prof Rajaram Panda

After adopting a path-breaking measure to rearm Japan in December 2022 in the wake of North Korean threat and China’s belligerence, Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida undertook a six-day, five nation tour starting with 8 January 2023 that took him to France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States, seeking support for his policy. Kishida’s sojourn triggered some interesting speculations and interpretations in world media, including in India. This was significant since Japan took over the presidency of the powerful Group of Seven industrialised nations and is scheduled to hold a summit in Kishida’s home constituency Hiroshima on 19-21 May 2023.

The import of Kishida’s visit cannot be missed as he met the leaders of five of the G-7 nations. Germany was the only exception. Was Kishida’s foreign foray intended to camouflage his domestic political troubles where his key ministers tendered resignations over a host of issues, including links with the Unification Church and links with the assassination of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo? Or was it intended to arrest his plummeting approval ratings that had come down to below 30 per cent? What probably led Kishida to undertake this tour was to seek endorsement from his allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to his National Security Strategy and New Defense Strategy report released in December 2022.[1] Kishida wanted to brief the leaders of the countries he visited about the roadmaps the two reports outlined about doubling Japan’s military expenditure and adding counter-strike capabilities to the Self-Defense Forces (SDF).

Breaking away from Japan’s self-imposed commitment to keep its annual defence below 1 per cent of the country’s GDP and increase to 2 per cent of the GDP within 5 years is a revolutionary step. Given the size of Japan’s GDP, a 2 per cent hike in the GDP towards defence spending would make Japan the world’s third-largest defence spender after the US and China. Such a step would go against the spirit of the peace clause enshrined in the Article 9 of the Constitution. By executing plans to build critical counter-strike capabilities Japan would mark a historic breakaway from the past and would trigger a major arms race in the larger Indo-Pacific region, it is feared.

The broad objective of Kishida’s visit was to strengthen military ties with Europe and Britain and bring into focus the Japan-US alliance at a summit in Washington with Joe Biden[2] as well as to brief the compulsions behind breaking from its post-war restraints and take on a more offensive role with an eye on China. While underscoring the alliance relationship with the US, Kishida explained to Biden during his meeting how Japan’s security and defence strategies are aligned with the US goals in the Indo-Pacific. Kishida explained to Biden that his December decision on key security and defence reforms, including a counter-strike capability were necessary as the current deployment of missile interceptors were insufficient for Japan to defend from rapid weapons’ advancement in China and North Korea. Under the new strategies, Japan plans to start deploying in 2026 long-range cruise missiles that can reach potential targets in China and improve the country’s cyberspace and intelligence capabilities. During his talks with Biden, Kishida explained why he felt necessary for Japan to reinforce its defences on its south-western islands close to Taiwan, including Yonaguni and Ishigaki, where new bases are under construction.

Russia’s military operation in Ukraine was another concern which Kishida flagged with the leaders he met. The main concern was that it affected the global economy and impacted the rules-based international order. The fear of Chinese President Xi Jinping taking military action against self-ruled Taiwan was another trigger behind Kishida’s decision to overhaul the country’s defence profile.

Notwithstanding the perceived strain in the Japan-US alliance over the issue of securing burden-sharing issue, it transpired that the China factor propelled both Japan and the US to accept the need for a more robust response to counter China’s belligerence. This also meant broadening cooperation with other regional partner such as Australia and possibly South Korea. What it meant was to rethink and update the structure and the mechanism of the alliance to make it more responsive in time of crisis.

Prior to the Kishida-Biden summit. Japan’s Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada and Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi met with their counterparts Lloyd Austin and Antony Blinken, followed by separate defence ministers’ talk, during which the issue of Japan assisting in the supply and storage of fuel and ammunitions in case of a Taiwan emergency was discussed. Both sides noted that North Korea launched more than 90 ballistic missiles in 2022, upping the ante after then US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022. Japan and the US are also exploring the possibility of establishing a joint command and further integrating their operations. Japan has complicated relations with Moscow, Beijing and Pyongyang. Japan also has territorial disputes over the Kurile Islands chain with Russia. This has been further exacerbated by Russia’s military operations in Ukraine, turning Japan to be Russia’s strongest critic in Asia.

Economic issues were also on the table during Kishida-Biden talks. Japan’s Economy and Industry Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura and US Secretary of Commerce Gin Raimondo laid the groundwork to work together to promote and protect critical and emerging technologies, including semiconductors, and export controls to address competitiveness and security concerns.

After the conclusion of the annual 2+2 meeting of defence and foreign ministers in Washington, both sides reiterated their shared commitment to “deter Chinese military threats in the East China Sea and around Taiwan, to reorganise US Marine Corps units based in Okinawa, and to expand cooperation from outer space to cyber-security to other sectors of advanced military technologies, including upgrading US weapons transfers to Japan”.

Another highlight of Kishida’s five-nation tour was the signing of a Reciprocal Access Agreement with Britain.[3] This is the most important defence pact between Japan and Britain since 1902. The agreement allows the two countries’ armed forces to be deployed on each other’s territories. As this also signals Britain’s Indo-Pacific tilt, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak appropriately called it “historic”.[4] In fact, both Japan and Britain had been discussing to sign this agreement for quite some time. After the agreement, both sides can how hold joint military exercises in either country. Japan has the security treaty with the US, which allows the latter to station troops in Japan. Japan has similar agreement with Australia signed in January 2022 and Britain would be now second such country.

Hereafter, Britain’s Indo-Pacific strategy would get a further heft. Japan is the strongest advocate of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”. Like other Asian countries, Britain has too identified China’s expanding footprint as its shared challenge with partner countries and therefore has made a priority to engage with the Indo-Pacific more deeply for its own security. Britain is already a member since September 2021 of the AUKUS trilateral defence partnership for the Indo-Pacific. The former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called it a “new chapter” and expressed commitment to help Australia acquire a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. Kishida reaching out to Western allies is another strategy in the Indo-Pacific paradigm.

Not many observers and analysts ever contemplated that Kishida perceived as a dove would adopt such radical changes in Japan’s defence and security profile. Kishida’s drift seems to be a response to the changing demands of the times. However, there appears to be a doublespeak on Kishida’s stance.

He was the first Prime Minister of Japan to attend the Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in New York on 1 August 2022. In a speech delivered at the general debate, he expressed Japan’s strong determination to work together with other state parties to firmly uphold the NPT as one of its guardians.[5] Kishida pitched his vision of a world without nuclear weapons at the Group of Seven summit to be held in Hiroshima in May 2023, amid fears that Russia might use an atomic device against Ukraine in the ongoing war[6] Kishida’s remarks came after he held talks with his French, Italian, British, Canadian and US counterparts in the run-up to the gathering in his home prefecture Hiroshima in May 2023. In a press conference in Washington he commented that the world should “not make light of the history” in which no nuclear weapons have been used in the past 77 years. He promised that G-7 will confirm its commitment to upholding “the international order based on the rule of law” at the upcoming summit.

Among other highlights of Kishida-Biden talks were to deepen security ties, secure semiconductor supply chains to counter China’s economic clout in the region, and bolster cooperation in fields ranging from the economy to technology. Emphasising that semiconductors are key materials for economic security, Kishida sought cooperation with the US to deal with this with an eye on China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific region. He did not elaborate, however, if Japan would impose export controls on semiconductors against China, a move recently implemented by the US.

Dealing with China with which Japan has close economic ties is one of the toughest challenges for Kishida. Ahead of the G-7 summit in May, Kishida does not have plans to hold talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping. He, however, is open to improve relations with South Korea despite that both have many unresolved issues. During Moon Jae-in’s presidency, ties with South Korea soured to the worst level due largely to dispute over wartime labour. Xi Jinping’s repeated statements about achieving reunification of Taiwan with the mainland, by use of force if necessary, have unnerved many Asian nations.

While Kishida shared concerns with Germany Chancellor Olaf Scholz whose policies in the wake of Russia’s military operations in Ukraine and then reversing decades of extreme caution in military matters by proposing to take defence expenditure to 2 per cent of Germany GDP, he was only sharing his own proposal to do the same. In England, Kishida spoke about joint development and production of its F-X next generation fighter jet. In Italy, a planned deployment of the same in 2035 topped the agenda. In Paris, first stop of his five-nation tour, Kishida shared concern over China’s growing activity in the South Pacific in his talks with French President Emmanuel Macron and confirmed stepping up joint military exercise between the two sides. Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni too committed to work with Japan on common concerns.

In conclusion, it can be said that Kishida’s outreach to the Western friends was to seek common viewpoints on the regional security challenges, besides underlining self-help options. Kishida seems to have succeeded in building an understanding with the leaders of the five nations he visited in sharing concerns about China, North Korea and Russia. If Kishida’s foreign forays looked to be a success in his foreign policy front, it remains to be seen in the coming months if these shall help in reversing his plummeting popular ratings. His tasks are not over. A host of domestic issues such as arresting declining birth rate, reviving the economy, arresting the falling yen and many more are on the table to address. His tasks are gigantic. There is no denying however that Kishida’s meeting with the G-7 leaders only strengthened Japan’s reputation as a security partner sharing common concerns about China and the fate of Taiwan.[7] Domestically, if the Japanese people see Kishida accepted as a leader of repute internationally by other G-7 leaders, he can expect a temporary boost in the approval rating. If that happens, it is up to Kishida to maintain that momentum and steer Japan’s destiny for a better future.

Endnotes :

[1]Swaran Singh, “Kishida’s rearming of Japan wins supports of allies”, 13 January 2023, https://asiatimes.com/2023/01/kishidas-rearming-of-japan-wins-support-of-allies/?fbclid=IwAR3C0AUwmHNE7WsrW0oYEFM_qjicwLbAUjlUT84pnJYMZLUWURPQQX_3IeQ&mibextid=Zxz2c
[2]Mari Yamaguchi, “Kishida highlights security concerns on trip to Europe, US”, 9 January 2023, https://apnews.com/article/russia-ukraine-biden-politics-japan-united-states-government-e7c7d6ea7c54df8f6c7b4242c8ed47de
[3] Tatsuhiko Tamura, “Japan-UK Relations Enter New Phase with Defense Pact”, Japan Forward, 13 January 2023, https://japan-forward.com/japan-uk-relations-enter-new-phase-with-defense-pact/
[4]Duncan Bartlett, “Kishida Signs a Defense Pact with Britain to Counter the Threat from China”, Japan Forward, 13 January 2023, https://japan-forward.com/kishida-signs-a-defense-pact-with-britain-to-counter-the-threat-from-china/
[5]For the full text of Kishida’s speech titled “Leading the World Towards a Future Without Nuclear Weapons”, see, https://www.japan.go.jp/kizuna/2022/09/future_without_nuclear_weapons.html
[6] “Kishida vows to pitch vision of world without nuclear weapons at G-7”, 15 January 2023, https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-relations/Kishida-vows-to-pitch-vision-of-world-without-nuclear-weapons-at-G-7
[7] “Japan PM's trip tackles China-Taiwan tensions ahead of G7 summit”, Mainichi Daily News, 14 January 2023, https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20230114/p2g/00m/0in/010000c

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

Image Source: https://japannews.yomiuri.co.jp/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/biden-kishida.jpg

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